June 1, 2007

Celebrating the Human Spirit

Commencement and Reunion are among the most significant events on the annual calendar in the life of the College. Coming at the end of the academic year, and so close together, they invite reflection, celebration, and encouragement.

Our newest alumni came of age in an era fraught with conflict and unprecedented challenges. During the years of their youth, and since coming to college, they have witnessed and been forced to endure the tragedies at Columbine High School, Oklahoma City, and September 11, 2001. In the years following September 11, we have gone to war in Afghanistan and then Iraq. Most recently, we saw fellow students and faculty come under attack at Virginia Tech, where the loss of life included our own Danny O’Neil, Class of 2006.

In my May 19 commencement remarks to the Class of 2007, I spoke to them about a greater and more fundamental challenge resulting from these and other events — the cost to the human spirit, to the capacity for hope and for faith in the viability of progress. What is at risk is our belief that tomorrow can be better than today and that making it so is worth the effort. Given the current state of the world, it would be entirely natural, and even understandable, to give in to cynicism and individual pragmatism.

But as we reflect on recent events, and more generally, on the underlying problems — escalating violence at home and abroad, deep-seated ideological and cultural conflict, and eroding confidence in the capacity of governments to lead — I would suggest that our greatest challenge is to transcend despair and defeatism to allow the human spirit to triumph.

If we are open to seeing it, the evidence is actually everywhere, from the members of the Hokie Marching Band encamped outside area hospitals in Virginia, to the work of our own students here and elsewhere who have developed educational programs for children in Easton, clean water systems for communities in Honduras, and disease prevention programs to fight HIV in Africa.

Our graduates are well prepared to enter the real world, and they are supported by a strong network of friends, family, and all of us here at their new alma mater. As they prepare for the next step of their lives, I encourage them to take what they have learned here and to go out into the world with energy and passion — allowing their own human spirit to burn within them. Unless they are exceptionally fortunate, they will surely be required to challenge their own circumstances, whatever they may be, and then to rise above them.

But if they do, perhaps their generation can do better than mine in realizing the hope expressed by President John Kennedy nearly a half century ago — that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics but for our contribution to the human spirit. We are counting on them.

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